Mac Laird of Williamsburg is living the old adage, "You're never too old to follow a dream." An avid outdoorsman with a love of history, Laird, 85, discovered a need to write as he aged and couldn't do some of the things he used to do.
"Cutting down trees, barking them, assembling them is beyond my strength and endurance, and so are paddling white water, green woodworking, climbing mountains, and long overnight hikes on the Appalachian Trail," he wrote in an email exchange with the Daily Press. "Writing is something I enjoy and can do."
John Conlee, Laird's friend and a professor of English literature at the College of William and Mary, said, "All writers, young or old, face most of the same problems. But one huge advantage that older writers have is their many years of life experience. One of the basic tenets of creative writing is to 'write what you know,' but younger writers haven't lived enough to have a rich foundation upon which to draw. Mac Laird's stories are certainly enriched and leavened by his many decades of real life experience."
Laird spent most of his career on the water. In 1944, Laird, then 16, joined the Navy and went to sea a year later on the USS Ashland LSD1, a landing ship dock. He was discharged from the Navy in 1946 after World War II ended, but re-enlisted in 1947, returning to sea on the destroyer USS Perry DD844. He served in the Asiatic Pacific and Philippine war zones as a radioman in the amphibious forces, retiring as a senior chief radioman.
After leaving the Navy, Laird went to school at the University of Maryland and went on to become a Navy civilian employee in telecommunications management and operations.
To get away from the rat race of his life in Washington, D.C., Laird decided to build a log cabin in the Shenandoah mountains.
"I tried to…escape from the chaotic pace of living and working near metro DC…every chance I got," he said. It was like coming home for Laird, who grew up on a small farm in the Louisiana Kitsatchi National Forest.
His wife, Johnnie, encouraged him to turn that project into a book: "I knew he was capable of writing." she said, but it wasn't until after he retired and moved to Williamsburg that her suggestion took root.
"Quail High above the Shenandoah," a nonfiction chronicle of his cabin-building journey, was published in 2007. "The content of my first book was easily derived from a journal I kept from 1968 to 2007 and from guest books by more than a hundred guests who seemed to enjoy writing their experiences," he said.
Laird credits the move to Williamsburg for inspiring his turn to fiction as well.
"I moved to Williamsburg in August 1990, volunteered to work in the Rita Welsh Literacy for Life (then known as Rita Welsh Adult Literacy Program), and heard the story about an Indian boy who ran away from Indian school at the College of William and Mary, somehow crossed the James River, and showed up at his Cherokee tribe three months later," he said.
"Some trip that was through the densest of wilderness — and the lad was just a boy," he said. "I never got the details about it although I have searched three libraries and ask many historians. The story still fascinates me. I decided to write a fictional tale from my own imagination but historically accurate in the times, places, and people. "
In 2010 Laird published "Dangerous Differences" which, according to the book's press information, introduces "the troubling differences between the frontier Indians and the settlers of the new world." That book was a nominee for the Library of Virginia's 14th Annual Literary Awards.
The story picks up in 1713, 13 years later, in Laird's newest book, "Christanna," which centers around Lt. Gov. Alexander Spotswood's project to construct a fort to house, educate and protect the local native Americans. The book is undergoing review by The Library of Virginia for nomination for the 17th Annual Literary Awards in fiction.
Laird's books are a family affair, his wife said. The couple, who have known each other for 74 years and been married for 64, are using the books as a way to bond during their retirement years.
"In Washington D.C., he worked long hours and traveled. So our together time was limited. Now he is home writing and together time is an added joy for us," Johnnie said.
Laird approaches the production of his self-published books methodically. "These books took a little over three years each, one third researching, one third writing and one third support (such as sales)," he said.
The photo on the cover of "Christanna" is "a view of the James River near Williamsburg. It is a typical Virginia Peninsula landscape," Laird writes. He used a Nikon 40, digital, and said he layered several photographs with Adobe Photoshop CS5 until he found the right mix for the cover.
Johnnie who is a "strong grammarian," loves to read and has "unfailing judgment of what works and what doesn't in scenes," Laird said.
She read and reread her husband's manuscripts looking for misspellings, punctuation problems and repetitive language. She also reviewed scenes that she found confusing. "He is very receptive to my suggestions, and we discuss them at length," she said.
In addition, Laird's son, Jeffrey, 60, who is a certified mapping scientist, did the diagramming and mapping for the series. And William and Mary English Professor John Conlee reviewed the manuscript throughout the development.
"I watched them develop and take shape from their earliest stages, offering him encouragement and lending him a willing ear," Conlee said.
"Writers, more than anything else, need readers — readers who are willing to read attentively and in the spirit of constructive criticism. That's what I've tried to do," Conlee said.
With three books to his name, Laird has plans for more. Laird considers himself lucky because he has so many historical stories to draw from when he's writing.
"I live within a living museum, the historical triangle of Virginia," he said. "I know some wonderfully informed historians who gladly share their knowledge and have read others whose work I have drawn on. I, however, am not a historian, and therefore I am lucky to get just one small segment of Virginia's history right.
"I never tire of trying," Laird said, "but I still slip up on the occasional detail. Little wonder that I choose such a small segment of Virginia history."
Meet the author
Mac Laird will be signing copies of "Christanna" at the William and Mary bookstore, 345 Duke of Gloucester St., Williamsburg, on Saturday, March 29, from 2-6 p.m.
"Christanna" and Laird's other books are available in print and digital at Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com in prices ranging from about $30 for hardcover to $5 for digital. Discounted print copies are also available on quailhigh.com.
About the fort
Fort Christanna was founded by Lt. Gov. Alexander Spotswood, who headed the Virginia Colony from 1710-1722. The fort's name was a combination of the names of Queen Anne of England and Christ.
Spotswood wanted to offer education and safety to the Siouan-speaking and Iroquoian-speaking tribes, who were friendly to Virginia's settlers. The Siouan-speaking tribes included Saponi, Tutelo, Occaneecchi and Nahyssan, who were amendable to the concept. However, the Iroquoian-speaking Nottoway and Meherrin were not, so were assigned a separate parcel of land.
The fort was opened in Brunswick County in 1714 and included a school where the Native American children were taught English and to read the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. It operated for three years until white businessmen complained that the fort's trading post, the Virginia Indian Company, was competing with their businesses.
The fort was destroyed, but a cannon from it was eventually moved to the Christopher Wren building at the College of William and Mary. Another cannon was located in Lawrenceville, but was destroyed when it exploded in 1887 after it was fired.Copyright © 2015, CT Now